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Who is at risk for gallstones?

Risk for cholesterol gallstones

There is no relationship between cholesterol in the blood and cholesterol gallstones. Individuals with elevated blood cholesterol do not have an increased prevalence of cholesterol gallstones. A common misconception is that diet is responsible for the development of cholesterol gallstones, however, it isn't. The risk factors for developing cholesterol gallstones include:

  1. Gender. Gallstones occur more commonly in women than men.
  2. Age. Gallstone prevalence increases with age.
  3. Obesity. Obese individuals are more likely to form gallstones than thin individuals.
  4. Pregnancy. Pregnancy increases the risk for cholesterol gallstones because during pregnancy, bile contains more cholesterol, and the gallbladder does not contract normally. This change in composition of bile during pregnancy is due to the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy. Gallstones that form during pregnancy may remain following the pregnancy or may dissolve once the composition of bile has returned to the nonpregnant state.
  5. Birth control pills and hormone therapy Increased levels of hormones caused by either treatment mimics pregnancy.
  6. Rapid weight loss. Rapid weight loss by whatever means, whether it is a very low calorie diet or obesity surgery, causes cholesterol gallstones in up to 50% of individuals. Many of the gallstones will disappear after the weight is lost, but many do not. Moreover, until they are gone, they may cause problems.
  7. Crohn's disease. Individuals with Crohn's disease of the ileum are more likely to develop gallstones. Gallstones form because patients with Crohn's disease lack enough bile acids to solubilize the cholesterol in bile. Normally, bile acids that enter the small intestine from the liver and gallbladder are absorbed back into the body and are secreted again by the liver into bile. In other words, the bile acids recycle. In Crohn's disease, the ileum is diseased. Bile acids are not absorbed normally, the body becomes depleted of bile acids, and less bile acids are secreted in bile. As a result there are not enough detergent bile acids to keep cholesterol dissolved in bile, resulting in gallstone formation.
  8. Increased blood triglycerides. Gallstones occur more frequently in individuals with elevated blood triglyceride levels. The reason for this is unclear.

Risk for pigment gallstones

Black pigment gallstones form whenever an increased load of bilirubin reaches the liver. This occurs when there is increased destruction of red blood cells, as in diseases such as sickle cell disease and thalassemia. Black pigment gallstones also are more common in patients with cirrhosis of the liver. Brown pigment gallstones form when there is stasis of bile (decreased flow), for example, when there are narrowed or obstructed bile ducts.

Reviewed on 4/18/2016
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